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5.

The Ngugma language betrays an ancient lineage. It is simple the way only something that has been used for many millennia can be simple, and it is deep in only the way a pool that has been dug at the bottom of a river for uncounted summers can be deep. Its alphabet contains just sixteen characters, which in turn represent around two hundred sounds, all within the hearing range of humans, though only about half of them could be made by human mouths. They are divided into consonants and vowels and things that lie between the two, the way L and W do in English. There are nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs and conjunctions; prepositions which are prefixes. The language exhibits every complexity of clauses subordinate to clauses which are subordinate or parallel to other clauses and allied with yet other clauses in a hundred ways. It presumably would have been an excellent device for treaties, if the Ngugma ever felt the need to make treaties.

Perhaps the excellent structure of their language, or just its age, was what made them so good at learning the languages of other species. Perhaps it was also this which led them to give the Primoids a pass, at least until such time as they had made rubble of all other available terrestrial, metal-bearing planets. In any case, the language quickly came to make sense to those who had spent much time writing computer code: Padfoot, and also Rachel, Natasha, and all the Errhatzky. Park and the others slated themselves for speed tutorials, but for the time being, she relied on Padfoot to translate her simple message to the original crew of Big Fourteen.

“To the Ngugma aboard this freight vessel: As you may know already, you are prisoners of the star fleets of Bluehorse, Fyatskaab and the Primoid systems. Until we decide what to do with you, your life support will be maintained. There may be codes we will require from you, and you will give them to us or you will lose your life support privileges, including air. Message ends.”

Within a minute, a message came back. “To the organisms who have taken control of this vessel: We do not recognize your seizure of our vessel. Yet we accept the situation with equanimity. We propose a direct meeting between your representative and ours. Since we are not permitted to leave the zones we currently occupy, we propose meeting in our bridge, under a promise of safe conduct.”

“Equanimity?” Clay repeated.

“As if,” said Rachel.

“That’s one meeting that isn’t going to happen,” said Park, “at least not yet. All right. Padfoot, I would like you to compile a series of video images of what happened to our species on Earth. Perhaps we could alternate with the visual testimony from Fyatskaab: Mr. Skzyyn, would you mind terribly helping with that project? Ten minutes of video would do, I think, played on a loop on their main screen. They can’t do anything about that, can they?”

“Short of breaking the display, no,” said Padfoot.

“Even then,” said Clay, “I bet we can reroute to all their other screens.”

“All right,” said Park. “We’ll let them have an hour of that, and then we’ll reply to them. I’m beginning to think we might get out of this without fighting. It’s possible we can deal with the depot the same way as the crew.”

“Well,” said Rachel, “they’re not our prisoners, are they?”

“Aren’t they? Where could they go? If, for instance, a ship the size of a small moon, full of molten metals, were to impact their midsection at a tenth of a percent of the speed of light?”

“You wouldn’t,” said Clay. “Would you?”

“Would you, Mr. Gilbert?” asked Park, leaning down behind him. “Or have you become attached to Big Fourteen?”

“No,” said Clay. “No, I would definitely do that. Just tell me where to aim this thing.”

Park smiled. She stood up, turned and smiled at the others. “You seem pretty happy,” said Rachel, perhaps the only human who would say something like that to Su Park.

“Well, Ms. Andros,” said Park, “one finds oneself in an unusual position, to say the least, but it’s certainly a position of power. Shall we spend a minute or two composing a really stinging bit of sarcasm to send back? Do you think the Ngugma understand sarcasm?”

“Commander,” said Skzyyn, “I believe that is what you would call a universal language.”

She turned and found Natasha gazing, almost glaring, at her, Dzvezyets on her shoulder like an overgrown, flightless, eight-armed parrot in a vac suit. Park raised an eyebrow.

“Commander,” said Natasha, “we’ve been translating the archive, as you said, in order to get an idea of the strategic plan of the Ngugma. You know, what they’re doing and where they’re doing it.” Park, having kept her eyebrow raised, just cocked her head. Natasha gave the Tskelly pilot on her shoulder a glance, then said, “And I think we have something.”

“Can it be put into a few words?”

“No, Commander, I don’t think it can.”

“Does it make them make sense?” asked Rachel. “Is this going to explain how they had to do it because of things that suddenly will be totally clear and we’ll all just toss everything and go home and think how sad it was that we didn’t understand them till now?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Natasha, “but it’s—!” She stopped, looking a little shy.

“It can wait?” asked Park.

Natasha looked at Dzvezyets, who made a twirl of its head, an agreeable gesture among Tskelly and Errhatzky. She shook her head but said, “Yeah, yeah, it can wait.”

“Then let it wait,” said Park. “The time will come for revelation, but the time is not now.”

 

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